The Opioid Crisis Is Not Just About Pain Medication

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The opioid crisis is no longer primarily about prescription opioids. Illicit fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and other black market drugs are now involved in more overdoses than pain medication.

However, the current response to the overdose crisis is still focused primarily on opioid prescribing. Arizona just approved  legislation to reduce opioid prescribing for injured workers. And President Trump has stated that he will push for a one-third reduction in opioid prescribing over the next three years. 

The ongoing media narrative reinforces this view. The crisis is blamed on prescription opioids, combined with manipulative marketing by manufacturers, pharma funded advocacy groups, and poor prescribing practices by physicians. Although these factors may have played a role in the onset of the crisis 20 years ago, the “opioid epidemic” has evolved far beyond that.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse summarizes the origins of the crisis this way:

"In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there have been three “waves” to the crisis:

"The first wave of opioid overdose deaths began in the 1990s and included prescription opioid deaths. A second wave, which began in 2010, was characterized by heroin deaths. A third wave started in 2013, with deaths involving highly potent synthetic opioids, particularly IMF (illicitly manufactured fentanyl) and fentanyl analogs."

CDC researchers recently admitted that they significantly inflated the number of deaths involving prescription opioids for years.  They also acknowledged in an “Annual Surveillance Report of Drug-Related Risks and Outcomes” that high dose opioid prescribing has been in decline for over a decade:

“Between 2006 and 2016, the annual prescribing rate per 100 persons for high-dosage opioid prescriptions (>90 morphine milligram equivalents (MME)/day) decreased from 11.5 to 6.1, an overall 46.8% reduction and an average annual percentage change of 6.6%. The rate leveled off between 2006 and 2009, then decreased 9.3% annually from 2009 to 2016.”

These trends are clearly visible at the state level. Maine’s Attorney General recently said “Fentanyl has invaded our state” and that most of the overdose deaths there were caused by multiple drugs. When pharmaceutical opioids were involved, most of the time they were “not prescribed for the decedent.”

FiveThirtyEight gave a detailed breakdown of drug deaths by state. In an article headlined “There Is More Than One Opioid Crisis,” Kentucky was actually found to have more overdoses involving gabapentin than oxycodone.

And in a recent interview, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, refers to the crisis as shifting “from a prescription-pill problem to one centered around deadly street drugs.”

In other words, prescription opioids have become only a small part of a crisis that now includes heroin, illicit fentanyl, and an increasing number of non-opioid drugs. In fact, we are fast approaching what will become the fourth wave of the crisis, one involving poly-drug abuse and overdoses, that will further challenge first responders, emergency rooms and addiction treatment facilities.


But still the response to the crisis has been focused on opioid prescribing. This may have made some sense a decade ago, when surveillance of the crisis was just starting. It made for good optics, but it was bad policy. Curbing prescribing is wreaking havoc with pain management, not only for chronic, progressive and degenerative disorders but also cancer and hospice patients. And it is not helping people who suffer from opioid addiction.

As Drs. Stefan Kertesz and Sally Satel point out: “Too many health care providers have started to see their fierce commitment to dose reductions as a badge of good citizenship, without any effort to measure the human outcomes of their own policies.”

Pain management expert Dr. Lynn Webster wrote this about the recently announced Medicare plan to reduce high dose opioid prescribing: “Such actions will not reduce opioid deaths related to heroin and illicit fentanyl which is the source of most overdose deaths. In fact the opposite effect may occur."

The opioid crisis will not be solved by focusing on prescription opioids. It is too late for that. Failure to recognize the evolving nature of the crisis will simply risk more fatal overdoses.  

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.